Southern Movie 31: “Preacherman” (1971)
Buffoonish, caricature, and hick are the words that come to mind when I think about 1971’s Preacherman, which exploits every two-bit stereotype of the redneck/cracker Southerner that most Americans can conjure up. This low-budget, poorly constructed, badly acted movie, which was directed by, written by, and starring Albert T. Viola, appeared in Amazon Prime search results one day when I was looking for another film, and astonished by the absurdity of its portrayals, I couldn’t resist watching the whole thing.
Our story, which is set in North Carolina, begins in a barn – of course – where the main character, the con artist/preacher, is getting it on with a pretty young blonde in the hayloft and is discovered by a sheriff’s deputy, who races back to the office where he informs the sheriff. Meanwhile, the girl lies half-naked in the hay with pulled-apart clothes, as our preacher is admonishing her not to tell anyone what has just happened between them. As she writhes around the hay and moans, the preacher dons first his hat then his clothes before running like hell to a hillbilly tune that sets up the plot: “You better run, preacherman, or the sheriff’s gonna do you in.”
When the preacher finally quits running, he scoots into a white clapboard church whose sign informs us that he is “Circuit Preacher Amos Huxley” and that his sermon is titled, “Beware of false prophets.” After the service is over, Huxley – who is decked out in a black coat with tails, string tie, and back wide-brimmed hat, looking more like a 19th century riverboat gambler than a 1960s preacher – is speaking to people on the way out when the sheriff – named Zero Bull – and the deputy show up to confront him with Bertha, the girl from the hayloft, who is the sheriff’s daughter! “Oh Lord . . .” the preacher says.
From there, Huxley is put in the car and driven to the Whiteoak County line, where he is informed that he should never return, or else the sheriff will beat him bloody. To make sure that he understands, they rough him up a little bit.
Next, the scene shifts to a man attempting to start a rickety truck in front of a rickety shack. After a moment, he succeeds and begins to beep the horn and holler, “Mary Lou! Mary Lou!” A buxom young blonde in a skimpy dress emerges from the house and answers, “Yes, Papa?” He tells her that he is heading into town and will be back that night, then admonishes her to keep the boys that have been sniffing around away from the house. Back inside, the girl pours a hot bubble bath in a wash tub and strips off a kimono-like robe to get in.
Mary Lou hasn’t been in the bath long when she hears a sound and begins to call out to know who’s there. She picks up an old flint-lock rifle to prove her point, then is not-so-surprised by four grinning brothers who appear at the window. When invited in, they attempt Marx Brothers-style to enter all at once, but she advises them good-naturedly to come to the door instead. These must be the boys who have been sniffing around.
Shifting the scene back to our protagonist, Mary Lou’s father finds the beat-up preacher on the side of the road and drives him back into the county that he was just told to leave.
However, back at the house, Mary Lou has bedded down with one of the four brothers, Clyde, as the other three play cards, drink moonshine, and wait their turn. Yet, they won’t get their turns, since Papa shows back up with the salacious preacher Amos Huxley! The brothers and the blonde scurry and clear out, just as the pair arrive in the truck— but Papa know what’s going on, and gets off two shots from his double-barrel shotgun as the four flee across the field.
In the bedroom, as Huxley is waking up, he tells a tale of being attacked by escaped convicts and eyes Mary Lou as his next conquest. The three sit down to a simple dinner at a shabby table, and Papa explains that Mary Lou has never been baptized— which must be why she has “an unnatural hankering for the men folk.” Huxley’s attention perks up, and he asks, “What do have to say for yourself?” Mary Lou attempts to elaborate on her lustful nature but is stopped by her father. Yet, enough has been said.
The conversation is interrupted when Martha arrives in her truck. She is a young but uptight woman who has gifts for Papa and a desire to sing at Mary Lou’s baptism. She also brings the news that the road block is still set up to check all comings and goings to and from the county – which we know is set up for Amos Huxley – and Papa declares that they must be looking for the convicts who attacked the preacher. Huxley feigns weakness and apprises the small group that he must stay longer than he thought, and that he will baptize Mary Lou while he is there.
On the evening after baptizing Mary Lou, Huxley sets about trying to seduce her. Huxley is rubbing her up and down, asking Mary Lou if she is willing to do the Lord’s work, and Mary Lou says that she is. He’s moving along pretty well, until her father bursts into the room and interrupts. But Huxley won’t give up that easily. He tells the ignorant pair that she must be visited by the angel Leroy, who comes about midnight and stays for a couple of hours. Then she’ll be ready.
Of course, the angel Leroy is really the preacher, and the visitation is really just him sneaking in her window, and he has his way with Mary Lou while her stupid father swings a lantern in the dark outside, while calling out for the angel to come.
Now, about a half-hour into the one-and-a-half-hour movie, we have the two converging plot lines, with Amos Huxley tying them together: the sheriff on the look out for the scoundrel who deflowered his daughter, and the seduction of Mary Lou under the watchful eye of her father. We also have our deeply stereotypical foils: the brutal county sheriff and his dummy deputy, Farmer John with the pretty daughter, and the local-yokel redneck boys.
The next morning, an exhausted Papa ambles in the door and asks Mary Lou if the angel came. She tells him that “he came right on time, and he left at sunrise.”
In the next scene, we find out more about the preacherman as a lawman in a black suit explains that Huxley is wanted as far south as Georgia. He has been contriving and conning for a long time. We sense that heat is getting closer to our hero.
That evening, we get a oddly placed and briefly sentimental scene between Mary Lou and the preacher, where she asks him about his personal life. It isn’t really clear whether we’re supposed to feel sorry for Huxley or whether he has changed after his night with Mary Lou. The next day, in an equally sentimental scene, Papa confesses how badly he has let everything get run down since his wife has been gone, but then says that he has something to confess before he starts fresh on the right path. He then guides the preacher to a big ol’ moonshine still in the woods, declaring that he will destroy it for the sake of living a Godly life— but the preacher stops him! No, he advises, they can use the still too to do the Lord’s work. They will make loads of money, the excited pseudo-preacher tells him, and use it to build a great church!
However, it won’t be so easy. The four brothers, who previously constituted Mary Lou’s love interests, show back up. Met first by Papa, who has his shotgun at the ready, the four young men are told by Mary Lou that she has been baptized and saved, wiping the goofy grins from their faces.
In the bluegrass-fueled next montage that follows, we see what it looks like to make moonshine for Jesus. Later, in the evening, Papa and the preacher acknowledge that they’re selling so much moonshine they need help. Papa suggests a neighboring farmer named Farley, who has no wife nor other family, and who it is implied has sex with his chickens.
Back at the still, and in broad daylight, the eldest of the brothers Clyde shows up to see what is going on. Yet, instead of catting around for Mary Lou, this time he is there to ask for baptism and to join in the work there. Understanding that “Mary Lou is off limits,” Clyde joins the hardscrabble crew.
And things are looking up all the way around! Martha tells the preacher on one of the their trips that countywide road blocks have been lifted. Their sales can now extend farther and wider!
But it won’t last.
Clyde proves to be the weak link. In a trip to town to get supplies, he is stopped by the sheriff and his deputy. The two have been on a bench conversing about how Papa hasn’t been in town lately, and how sales of moonshine in town have been down, so something muse be awry. When he is questioned, Clyde spills the beans, and that’s when he sees the wanted poster with the preacher’s face on it.
Back at the house, Clyde finds the preacher counting a stack of money and challenges him, telling the con man that he wants Mary Lou back. After being rebuked, Clyde then finds Mary Lou in the hay barn and attempts to assault her. She fights him off, but then hears him out, as Clyde explains that preacher is a shyster. Outside in the light of day, Papa finally professes his interest in Martha, an outcome she has wanted the entire movie, and they take a sunset walk in the woods.
As Preacherman comes to a close, we find out from a candid conversation between Huxley and Mary Lou that the preacher will be leaving with the money “for the church,” but they have one more thing to do: host a big outdoor service for one last take! As the service begins, we all get to see Clyde down at city hall, and we know why he is there: to tell the law where to find the preacher. Huxley gives one more trite and stereotypical sermon, then passes the plate, declaring, “I hear too much clanging. I want to hear the rustle of that green paper.”
Just then, the sheriff’s car pulls up, and he fires a shot in the air. Huxley tries to defend his position by calling the stand of pines with the cinder block-and-plank benches the “house of the Lord.” When Papa tries to step in to prevent the sheriff from taking the preacher, Huxley takes the money and the girl and sneaks away. Out in the woods, though, Mary Lou tells Huxley that she can’t go with him, that she loves Clyde, and with a sly grin, the preacher tells her that he left a package for her Papa. Last we see the fake preacher, he running down the roadside, and we get a deus ex machina ending: a scantily clad lady from the revival is waiting for him in a drop-top Cadillac to aid in his escape. The pair drives away, passing the county line as the sheriff stops there and watches them get away.
Notwithstanding the lack of cinematography, the unsophisticated acting, and the onslaught of stereotypes, Preacherman is still a bad movie. Put mildly, it is a poorly done movie version of Hee Haw where the women reveal more than the primetime show’s low-cut blouses do. The movie’s page on TCM.com gives the Lead Performers one star out of five, the Supporting Cast one star out of five, and the directing two stars out of five. Quite generous. Perhaps you can’t go lower than one star since there were actual actors in the movie.
As a document of the South, Preacherman stoops lower than Hee Haw, which debuted in 1969, and way lower than later incarnations of the rural Southern comedy, like Dukes of Hazzard and Smokey and the Bandit. In Hee Haw, the quippy humor was sharp and punchy— in Preacherman, it is not. Using stereotypes to create humor can be well done, if the writers and actors understand the real-life circumstances that underpin the stereotypes. That is absent in this movie.
The New York Times had a little bit nice to say about Preacherman in a November 1975 article titled “Good Ole Boy,” about the trend of early 1970s trend of Southern-themed movies, calling this one a “C-grade, R-rated rewrite of ‘Elmer Gantry.'” The writer also explained this:
The film was made several years ago in North Carolina by a company hastily thrown together by a Charlotte movie distributor, Robert D. McClure.
“I had seen how well a couple of major studio films about the South had done,” Mr. McClure recalls, “so figured I could make me some money by doing a few myself, especially if I turned out action thrillers filled with classic car chases, a little spin, some ‘shine, some bigbellied sheriffs, the usual Southernisms.”
[ . . . ]
“The director had to come down from New York,” Mr. McClure says, because somebody had to know what to do. The shooting took 16 days—about a fourth the normal time — and we brought the whole thing in for less than $65,000, which would last Burt Reynolds and the ‘Gator’ cast about two days.
However, as a person who likes bad movies for their bad-ness, this one bothered and bored even me. The only thing Southern about Preacherman is the desire to interpret something that its writers and directors didn’t understand. Not only are the portrayals of backwater hicks as cardboard as can be, there’s another element of Southern culture that is totally missing: race. There are no black people in this film at all.
If we say that Preacherman was just made as a throwaway moneymaker, I could see the throwaway part, but not the moneymaker. If this movie really grossed five-million dollars, like The New York Times said, there were a lot of pissed-off people leaving American theaters that year.